Nature: New Contexts, New Art by Women

By Ellen K. Levy

Published in Woman’s Art Journal, Fall/Winter 2020, Vol. 41, Number 2.

Nature, a realm of biochemical and physical forces, has also long been contested territory, subject to shifting theories, histories, policies, stories, myths, and beliefs. To look at art and art history is to see a projection of changing ideas about nature in varying contexts and scales. Over the past thirty years, feminism and science (along with popular culture) have come far in defining what nature now means. This text calls attention to a diversity of art by eight women whose content converges with recent scientific discoveries about nature. Without comprising a single category (they identify as ecofeminists, bioartists, and media artists), the artists create works that embody what physicist and feminist Evelyn Fox Keller designated a “new consciousness of the potentialities lying latent in the scientific project.” (1)

Nature Reframed by Feminist Science

The artists explore topics such as self/non-self (Marta de Menezes), the food web (Christy Rupp), cooperation and competition (Lillian Ball), pattern formation and symmetry (Tauba Auerbach), morphogenesis (Janet Echelman), nature and culture interrelationships (Maria Elena Gonzalez), the science of self-organization (Victoria Vesna), and origins of life (Rachel Sussman). Their perspectives are informed by new scientific understandings and feminist writings that question traditional Enlightenment distinctions between nature and culture. (2) In addition to Keller, other key scientific influencers include an early environmental pioneer, Rachel Carson, who authored Silent Spring (1962), launching the environmental movement. (3) Other feminists include Donna Haraway and Lynn Margulis. Haraway revealed Western science largely as a competition for power and resources among groups with different stakes. (4) Margulis showed the prevalence of symbiosis (mutually beneficial relationships between organisms) throughout the natural world, thereby reformulating ideas of evolution. (5) Feminists have devoted great efforts to dismantling old gender stereotypes, questioning assumptions that science is gender neutral or that women are necessarily defined by gender-related activities. (6) Elizabeth Lloyd stated, “Scientific views about gender differences and the biology of women have been the single most powerful political tool against the women’s movements.” (7)

Fig. 5 [color] Lillian Ball, GO Donãna (2008), multimedia interactive installation with projectors, dimensions variable, ideally shown in 236″ x 314″ room. Photo: Lillian Ball. Courtesy of the artist and Fundacion Biacs. 

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(Top photo: Fig. 3. Christy Rupp, Great Auk (2008), from the series, Extinct birds previously consumed by Humans, welded steel, fast food chicken bones, paper, mixed media 32″ x17″ x 22″. Photo: Christy Rupp.)

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ecoartapace was conceived in 1997 by Patricia Watts in Los Angeles. In 1999, Watts partnered with east coast curator Amy Lipton, operating as a nonprofit under the umbrella of SEE, the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs in California. 2019 marked twenty years that Watts and Lipton have curated art and ecology programs, participating on panels and giving lectures internationally. Combined, they have curated over sixty art and ecology exhibitions, many outdoors in collaboration with artists creating site-specific works. They have worked with over one thousand artists from across the United States, and some internationally. Starting 2020, ecoartspace became an LLC membership organization based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A project of the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs since 1999

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